City & County of Honolulu

Mixture of new
and old puts Council
in uncharted waters

The City Council opens its session
Thursday with 9 new members

Who are they?

By Crystal Kua

If political science professor Ira Rohter were writing an essay on the nine new councilmembers at Honolulu Hale, the title could read something like this: "City Council -- Big Question Mark."

"This thing is so unmarked territory because you've got a mixture of experienced legislators from the state, you've got these new people who are first-time policymakers and you've got a mayor who is incredibly weakened (by an investigation into his campaign fund-raising)," Rohter said.

The latest lineup of the City Council -- the result of term limits, redistricting and scandal from the previous Council -- takes office Thursday.

The three carry-over councilmembers -- Gary Okino, Ann Kobayashi and Romy Cachola -- have no more than two years of experience on the job. Newly elected members Mike Gabbard, Nestor Garcia, Donovan Dela Cruz, Barbara Marshall, Charles Djou and Rod Tam comprise two-thirds of the Council.

The Council immediately faces staggering challenges: a $160 million budget deficit; talk of raising property taxes to balance that budget; the contentious mandatory leasehold conversion firestorm; an aging sewer system; a mounting landfill problem; and deciding whether bus rapid transit is the answer to Oahu's traffic congestion.


Who are they?

The 9 new City Council members: 
Romy  Cachola: One concern will be the lease-to-fee controversy; 
Donovan Dela Cruz: Brings his experience on a local board; 
Charles  Djou: Foresees  a bolder and more aggressive Council; 
Mike Gabbard: Same-sex marriage battle gave him political know-how; 
Nestor Garcia: Has experience as a former member of the state Legislature; 
Ann Kobayashi: Some critics say her actions are politically motivated; 
Barbara Marshall: Journalism training will let her weigh all sides, say observers; 
Gary Okino: The new Council chairman warms to the role of

A city planner for over 30 years, incoming Council Chairman Okino describes himself as a "facilitator" whose experience with city government can help guide the council.

"I can help them with my knowledge, just warn them of what the problems will be, the pitfalls, what kinds of information to focus on, and which questions to look at and answer and where to go for the information," the soft-spoken Okino said.

"My style is not tell anybody what to do, but make sure that they can make good decisions. It's going to be their own decisions, but give them enough information so they can make good decisions."

Kobayashi, the former Senate Ways and Mean chairwoman, will look after the city's purse strings, continuing her role as Budget Committee chairwoman.

Kobayashi scrutinized Mayor Jeremy Harris' budget, something folks weren't used to in recent years.

"The way we should balance the budget is revenues and spend the money you bring in, but we have been spending money from other sources -- the sewer fund, the solid waste fund -- and we've been borrowing money to pay back debt," Kobayashi said.

Critics viewed Kobayashi's motives as purely political, a quest for higher political aspirations.

"Whenever I ask questions, it's not against the mayor or the administration," Kobayashi said. "It's just that questions have to be asked. There is a line between administrations and legislators. It doesn't have to be a wall; it can just be a line. We can certainly work together, but we're not going to rubber-stamp everything."

In his role as chairman of the Policy Committee, Cachola will have to devise a compromise between landowners and lessees in the condominium lease-to-fee controversy in which the city uses its powers of condemnation to give lessees the opportunity to buy fee under their homes.

"The reason I think they wanted me to look at issues like this is because, I think, my past history of what I did -- always come up with (solutions) for difficult issues and putting things together," said Cachola, a former state lawmaker.

The three incumbents describe their new colleagues as independent, intelligent and idealistic.

Along with Cachola and Kobayashi, Djou, Garcia and Tam are former members of the state Legislature.

Some see Garcia and Marshall's training as television journalists as giving them an ability to weigh both sides of controversial questions. Dela Cruz, meanwhile, brings his experience on a neighborhood board and Gabbard has his political know-how gained as a leader in the successful fight against same-sex marriage.

Playing 'footsies'

While the council-mayor relationship over the years had its ups and downs, former state Democratic Party chairman and former council chairman Walter Heen is among those who believe the Council fulfills an important role of checks and balances.

"The policy and function of a legislative branch is to question and probe and ensure that the information is correct, and the proper policies and directions are being established," Heen said.

Rohter said: "I think there were periods that I recall when the Council was strong and there were fights with (former Mayor Frank) Fasi, and there were good fistfights. It seems like the last few years under Harris, he pretty much became the top dog and (councilmembers) were much more going along."

Heen quipped: "With this last City Council, god, they were playing footsies (with the administration) all the way."

Which is why Heen and other political observers see great potential in this new group.

"I think it's going to be more arm's-length than the last Council," Heen said. "Part of the reason is that you have people there who served in the Legislature, and they understand the relationship between the two branches of government."

Many agree that the Council probably will not take advantage of the mayor's legal problems, but its new independent spirit could make for livelier discussions.

"I think that you're going to see a stronger Council," Djou said. "I think you're going to see a more bold and much more aggressive Council."


Okino is looking forward to a fresh start a new Council brings, especially following an era plagued by scandal that included two councilmembers, Rene Mansho and Andy Mirikitani, going to jail.

"The image of the Council right now is pretty bad," Okino said. "The only way I think we can restore the public's confidence is to start from scratch. And I think having six new councilmembers -- basically, it's like starting like a new Council."

But, Okino recalled, "When Rene Mansho and those guys ... first came in, they were really idealistic, too. And somewhere along the lines, they lost perspective. It's very easy to do."

Djou said he believes that having several former legislators on the Council could help prevent them from getting a "big head" and avoid the same temptations that led to the downfall of previous councilmembers.

"Are there pitfalls? The answer is yes, most definitely," Djou said. "We're not completely new to this, so we're not completely new to everybody fawning all over you."

The Lingle factor

With Linda Lingle's successful "New Beginning" gubernatorial campaign, that same fervor for change may have trickled down to the county level.

"I think there's genuinely an air of, 'It's time for change. We can't do things the way we used to do it,'" Rohter said. "There's a lot of resonance in saying, 'Let's look at city government and see where we're making mistakes.'"

While Lingle is not a fan of the mayor's bus rapid transit plan, she has said that the state and city need to be on the same course when it comes to solving commuter woes if they are to take advantage of federal transportation dollars.

And with Lingle being a home-rule advocate for counties and the first former mayor to become governor, the county governments may gain more power.

"That would fit very nicely with the Council people," Rohter said. "She's very aware of how the world looks from a more local level."

City & County of Honolulu

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